Galvin,. B.Sc. N.D.
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Affective Disorder (SAD) affects about 5% of Americans, predominantly
women of reproductive age. Symptoms may include fatigue, lethargy,
decreased sociability, decreased libido, oversleeping, increased
appetite, starch and sugar cravings and weight gain. SAD is different
from non-seasonal depression in that there is full remission and
sometimes even a state of mild mania in the spring and summer
much interest and research since the mid 1980's, the mechanism
behind SAD remains unclear. However, much insight has been gained
and many hypotheses formed that are useful in treating this condition.
There are three players that are thought to play a role in this
disorder. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland,
a small gland situated at the base of the brain. The pineal gland
controls our circadian rhythms in response to the light and dark
cycles of day and night. When our eyes take in sunlight our nervous
system sends a message to the brain to stop the synthesis of melatonin.
When it is dark, the pineal gland is no longer suppressed by the
light stimulus and melatonin production increases. Melatonin makes
us feel sleepy and affects mood. In fact, melatonin became popular
in recent years as a sleep aid, particularly for those who's sleep
patterns were disrupted by shift work or jet lag. Cortisol, a
hormone produced by our adrenal glands is also thought to play
a role since it increases as melatonin decreases. Serotonin is
a neurotransmitter that is associated with depression and is thought
to be involved in the symptoms of SAD. In fact, many anti-depressants
increase serotonin. Interestingly, melatonin is made from serotonin.
are a few therapies that are found to be useful in the treatment
of SAD. Firstly, and most debated, is light therapy. Bright light
or full spectrum light or even better, good old-fashioned sunlight
is used to alleviate symptoms. There is controversy in regards
to whether or not this works, in which cases it is useful, and
when and how to administer it. But for the most part, people with
SAD benefit from this. One half hour to three hours of light exposure
daily, administered at dawn or on waking and/or in the evening
using bright light is a typical prescription for light therapy.
There are manufacturers that make lamps specifically for this
purpose. An alternative is to spend the time outdoors on sunny
winter days. Expect a change in a few days.
therapy is exercise. In a 1998 study (Lewy, Bauer, Cutler), light
therapy and exercise were found to increase oxygen consumption
and improve symptoms in patients with SAD. Non-seasonal depression
and non-depressed subjects' oxygen consumption was minimally affected
by light but did increase with exercise. Aside from this study,
we know that exercise relieves stress and acts to elevate mood.
has been proposed as an aid to those suffering from SAD. Melatonin
could be used to shift the wake-sleep cycle to normal. However,
caution should be exercised since this hormone is thought to be
part of the problem in the first place. Also, the long term effects
of melatonin therapy are not yet known.
anti-depressant therapy, particularly of the class of pharmaceuticals
called SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as
Paxil, Luvox, Prozac, Zoloft, Serzone) have been useful in alleviating
symptoms and may be an option in those unresponsive to light therapy.
Some naturopathic alternatives should also be considered. A standardized
extract of St. John's Wort would raise serotonin levels and provide
symptom relief in mild to moderate cases. An extract form the
plant ‘Griffonia', 5-HTP (5-hydroxy tryptophan) could be
used as well to raise serotonin, (serotonin is 5-HT), although
it should not be mixed with St. John's Wort. Gingko biloba may
be useful particularly for those in their middle or senior years.
Caution should be taken not to mix anti-depressant or anti-anxiety
medications with some of these botanicals.
is hope for those who suffer from seasonal depression. Depression
is a serious and potentially life-threatening disorder and should
be treated as such, by a health professional. However, something
as simple as sunlight could be all you need.
Galvin, Bsc., N.D. Practices Naturuopathic Medicine in Fredericton,
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